A bō is a staff or pole. The art of using a staff as a self-defense tool (bōjutsu) is a major component of kobudō, and many other martial traditions because:
- Bōjutsu is a fundamental skill. The bō is one of the easiest weapons to learn. Additionally, the skills learned in bōjutsu will carry over to all other polearms, like the yari (spear), naginata (glave), and eku (oar).
- Bō are easily improvised. Any tool with a long handle (i.e., broom, shovels, etc.), anything mounted on a pole (i.e. lamps, flagstaffs, etc.), many construction materials, tree branches, etc. can potentially be used as a weapon in an emergency.
- The bō is a formidable weapon. A bō grants its wielder a tremendous reach advantage. Since a bō requires the use of both hands, the reciprocal action of a strike is added to the strike itself, greatly increasing its power. Since the weapon will bear all of the impact, its wielder can strike harder than normal, since there is no chance of injuring their hands, like there is in punching.
- The bō offers a variety of force options. While the bō is a deadly weapon, it can also be used to disarm, incapacitate, or merely beat up an opponent. That is why in Western martial traditions, the bō is called a quarterstaff, because it can be used to “give quarter,” an old-timey expression that means “to show mercy.” This is in sharp contrast from other weapons, like knives, swords, or kama, which can only maim or kill. (“No quarter asked and none taken.”)
For these reasons, the bō has earned a reputation as “the king of weapons.” However, it is far from perfect -- because its many advantages are also its many weaknesses:
- Bōjutsu is predictable. The bō is large, and it uses both hands, it is intrinsically telegraphing. For example, after swinging to the right, the next move must be a thrust or a swing to the left. This is critical, because many of the standard defenses against staff-wielding attackers exploit this weakness to jam or trap the opponent’s staff.
- Bō are ineffective in confined spaces. The bō is cumbersome and requires lots of open space to be used effectively (e.g., parking lots, fields, the abandoned warehouse on Pier 54, etc.). However, in more confined places (e.g., hallways, apartments, aisles, etc.) you cannot swing the bō without hitting the walls, greatly reducing the available offensive and defensive options.
- Bō are ineffective at close ranges. The bō requires opponents to stand outside of punching range, where it’s power is greatest. If you were to close the distance on a staff-wielding attacker, geometry will render their strike less powerful, and easier to block. Likewise, the bō quickly becomes a liability in the clinch.
- Kūsankū movements are impossible. Because the bō requires both hands to operate, a bō can be used for offence or defense, but it cannot attack and defend simultaneously. Most of the defenses against staff-wielding attackers are based on exploiting this weakness.
For more information on bōjutsu, please consult Fumio Demura's Karate Weapons of Self-Defense: The Complete Edition, or a used copy of his earlier book, Bo: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense. (Though this might seem like a cop-out, no one can do a decent job of teaching bōjutsu without blatantly plagiarizing that book in some way.)
We will not make an in-depth or rigorous study of bōjutsu; we will only explain how the bō is used within Goshin-Jutsu Karatedō; that is, our system’s forms for this weapon. Our weapons serves as a supplement and teaching aid to our empty-hands training, and primarily consists of practicing the and analyzing the bunkai for the following kata:
Tips on Selecting a Bō
Many different styles of bō are commercially available, but the majority of them are junk.
A standard bō is 6’ (~183 cm) in length, and 1¼” (~3 cm) in diameter. Any staff or pole longer than 5’ (~152 cm) can be used as a bō. Shorter lengths are, by definition, jō (sticks), which require different techniques to be effective weapons. The diameter of the bō must be proportionate to its length, to avoid breaking. As such, your bō should be more that 1” (~2.5 cm) in diameter.
Seeing as how it’s just a big stick, there is no reason to pay more than $25 for a bō. Martial arts suppliers make their money off of catering to the vanity of the tournament scene, and a bō that sells for more than $25 is a surefire sign of flashy junk designed to impress judges; not to crack heads. Likewise, the budget-minded can just use the handle to a rake, shovel, etc. Cost does not imply quality.
We prefer to use bō with slightly-tapered ends, since they offer more powerful thrusts and an improved moment of inertia. However, a perfectly-straight bō is not “wrong.” Only using a competition bō is wrong. Many performers on the karate tournament scene use special lightweight staves which are easier to spin quickly, since they are more concerned with pleasing others with fancy twirls than they are with developing a rugged character or self-defense skills. These competition (or “toothpick”) bō are tapered over their entire length, from a 1” (~25 mm) center diameter to a ½” (~13 mm) diameter ends. Toothpick bō are too flimsy to be used in training or self-defense. To illustrate this point to our students, we once snuck up behind our colleague, Mr. Heath, and started savagely beating him with a toothpick bō. Not only was Mr. Heath completely uninjured, he wasn’t even angry -- just confused.
Many retailers sell bō made from lightweight materials, such as graphite, fiberglass, or rattan -- but these are toys for baton twirlers. We once saw a lightweight toothpick bō shatter during the normal performance of a kata. This is why a bō should be made from a quality hardwood, such as oak or cherry.
Likewise, a bō should be one, solid piece. Many competition bō come in sections that screw together like pool cues -- and this screw will loosen a little with each swing. Though they are easier to transport, these screw-together staves will only screw you over in self-defense.